Court Rules Missouri Town Can Restrict Westboro-Type Funeral Protests

A federal appeals court ruled in favor of a Missouri town's ordinance that restricts funeral picketing such as the controversial practice by Westboro Baptist Church. For several years prior to Tuesday's ruling, Westboro has been primarily protected in courts that cite the First Amendment.

Eleven members of 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found that the city of Manchester's law that basically bars protests at funerals was constitutional because it was narrowly written and offered picketers the opportunity to demonstrate in other ways, according to The Kansas City Star.

City attorney Patrick R. Gunn said lawyers were pleased "and maybe a bit surprised, given the history of this litigation," the Star reported.

The appeals court judges "weighed the benefits of the First Amendment and the rights of families who were grieving the loss of family members who were, for the most part, members of the military," Gunn said.

Westboro, considered a radical group by many that falls outside mainstream Christian beliefs, often pickets the funerals of soldiers, celebrities and people they deem to live a lifestyle inconsistent with their interpretation of the Bible.

The organization, led by Pastor Fred Phelps, believes that America is cursed for embracing homosexuality, and therefore is against all displays of patriotism, including honoring soldiers.

Manchester's ordinance requires protesters to stay at least 300 feet from a funeral home, cemetery or house of worship during the service and for an hour before and after. The ordinance is similar to an Ohio law that was found constitutional in 2008 by another court.

Westboro was given a legal victory last year when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the First Amendment protected the church from a lawsuit seeking damages for the "intentional infliction of emotional distress" at the funeral for a soldier in 2006, according to the Star.

Lawyers for the church are considering an appeal according to the American Civil Liberties Union of Eastern Missouri. The ruling on the Manchester ordinance was a reversal of a previous decision by a three-judge panel that found the law unconstitutional.

"It just may be that they were persuaded by their colleagues that the decision was appropriate," said law professor Carl Tobias from the University of Richmond in Virginia, the Star reported.

A spokesman for Westboro Baptist Church was recently asked by The Christian Post in a phone interview why it believes the U.S. is an "evil nation" headed for destruction.

"God says thou shall not kill. What we do in this nation is that we rip the babies from these fool American women, who get pregnant on that fornication with these fool American men, and then those few babies that are born, we break their moral compasses by failing to raise them in the nurture and admonition of the Lord, and then when they grow up, we hand them an M-16 rifle and tell them 'Go on and fight this bloody war in Afghanistan or Iraq', that we have no business fighting that we can never win," said Steve Drain, a member of the church.

CP has previously reported that the church is "Baptist" in name only, and actions by its members stand in strong contrast to many mainline and evangelical Christian views.